Attention is something that must be paid. Paying attention is not unrelated to discharging a debt, to offering tribute, to giving the entity that demands the attention something akin to cash. When you tell someone to pay attention, you are trying to take something from him, something that, one might assume, he does not wish to give: his focus, his presence of mind, his full being. Is it possible that paying attention is akin to paying tribute? When someone asks you to pay attention, he is imposing authority on you. Perhaps it is not that we can’t get ourselves to focus on this or that matter, but simply that offering attention is felt as a challenge, a burden. “I made myself pay attention, even though what he was saying was boring.” “It wasn’t easy to pay attention to him, but I did.” There’s a tribute involved. There’s a tax. There’s a debt. Do you understand? Are you paying attention to me? We can take satisfaction in paying a bill, or getting rid of a debt, but it is never exactly a joy.
I’d say […] that the deep opposite of attention isn’t distraction, but absorption. No one ever tells you to “pay absorption.” Absorption is what occurs when you immerse yourself in something you love doing. The artist and the poet and the philosopher and the scientist become absorbed. The kind doctor becomes absorbed in her patient; the teacher becomes absorbed in his class presentation. The musician becomes absorbed in the fugue. When that happens, time stops and one lives in an ongoing present. One feels whole and at one with oneself. The little boy drawing with his pad on the floor, tongue sticking out from one side of his mouth, is a picture of absorption. He is not really paying attention. He is being absorbed. What is happiness? W. H. Auden answered the question quite simply: Happiness comes in absorption.
[Mark Edmundson in The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014)]
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
[Louis Macneice, “Snow”]